Cockatoos learn to make and use wooden tools by watching each other

Avicultural enthusiasts have always known how clever birds are, but in recent years, research into bird intelligence has resulted in some truly amazing discoveries.

Figaro, an adult male Goffins cockatoo, was the first in his group to work out how to cut tools out of wooden beams and use them to retrieve nuts or toys that he couldn't reach with his beak or claws. Scientists observed him in 10 trials over 3 days as he manufactured and used a total of 10 different wooden tools to rake cashew nuts in under a wire grid.1

While a few bird species are known to use tools in the wild – most notably the New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides) and the Woodpecker finch (Camarhynchus pallidus) – the Goffins cockatoo is not typically known for this skill. Figaro's wooden nut-retrievers seem to be his own spontaneous discovery.

The Goffins cockatoo (Cacatua goffini) – also known as the Tanimbar corella – is a species of bird endemic to the Tanimbar Islands archipelago in Indonesia. Goffins cockatoos are friendly and sociable and make great pets. They are known to be highly intelligent, excelling at learning and copying. The researchers working at the lab in Austria had observed them solve elaborate mechanical problems in order to retrieve food: One involved a 5-stage lock with a pin, a screw, a bolt, a wheel and a bar, all of which had to be moved in a sequence to unlock a treat.2

The cockatoos were also observed to have a degree of self-control not usually observed in the animal kingdom. In an experiment, they would be allowed to pick up a food item (a pecan nut, for example), but be given the opportunity to return it to the researcher's hand in exchange for a preferable food item (like a cashew nut) after an increasing time delay. They would wait up to 80 seconds to see if something of higher quality was offered in exchange.3

When the scientists at the Vienna Goffins Lab witnessed Figaro's clever innovation, they saw an opportunity to investigate another aspect of tool use by birds which are not habitual tool-users.4 So they decided to see what would happen if they used Figaro as the instructor in a kind of avian woodwork class. A group of 12 cockatoos - none of which had ever been observed to use tools - took part in the experiment. Three males and three females were allowed to watch Figaro as he crafted his wooden tools and used them to retrieve food. At the end of 5 sessions, the three males could all use the tools to grab the food. In a further test, one male worked out how to make the tools himself, and the other learned how to make them after watching Figaro.

Most surprising of all, the birds did not simply copy Figaro's movements. Figaro would insert a tool through the cage grid at different heights and somewhat awkwardly try to rake the nut towards himself, all the time adjusting the position of the tool. His students outdid him, however, by laying the sticks down and knocking the nuts towards themselves with a quick flipping motion. Instead of simply imitating him, they had come up with their own more efficient techniques to achieve the same results!

References/Read more about the Goffins cockatoo research

  1. Spontaneous innovation in tool manufacture and use in a Goffin’s cockatoo Alice M.I. Auersperg, Birgit Szabo, Auguste M.P. von Bayern, Alex Kacelnik
  2. Auersperg AMI, Kacelnik A, von Bayern AMP (2013) Explorative Learning and Functional Inferences on a Five-Step Means-Means-End Problem in Goffin’s Cockatoos (Cacatua goffini). PLoS ONE 8(7): e68979. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068979
  3. Doing business with a parrot: Goffin cockatoos trade with nuts in an exchange experiment
  4. Social transmission of tool use and tool manufacture in Goffin cockatoos (Cacatua goffini) A. M. I. Auersperg, A. M. I. von Bayern, S. Weber, A. Szabadvari, T. Bugnyar, A. Kacelnik